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road sage

Two stories caught my eye last week. They seemed to encapsulate the state of driving culture on the North American continent. They weren't planned to coincide – as you will see – but they happened around the same time and their convergence (I'm using the word correctly, I hope) accidentally revealed the fundamental question that confronts every car-loving man and woman.

Here goes:

  • A 55-year-old Iowa man was arrested for drunk driving with a pet zebra and macaw parrot in his front seat. Jerald Reiter had a blood alcohol level of 0.14. According the Des Moines Register, he considers the animal pair pals and told arresting officers that they often accompany him on jaunts around his hometown of Cascade, Iowa. He was heading for a bar.
  • The Californian Senate unanimously agreed to allow autonomously driven vehicles such as those pioneered by Google. California could become the second state (Nevada was the first) to allow self-driven cars on its roads. The bill will now go to the state assembly, and, if signed by Governor Jerry Brown, would go into effect in January 2013.

That's the choice we face. Do we let the humans continue holding the steering wheel? Do we let them drive, knowing that there will always be those who are willing to do something as stupid and potentially lethal as drinking and driving? Or should we just hand the keys over to C-3PO? The robots are ready people. They have their learner's permit. People cause most accidents. The cars, lets face it, are fine.

They can drive longer and better than most humans and they're happy to do so. There's no doubt the robots can drive better than us. A robot would never get hammered and take his zebra/macaw buddies for a drive down to his local watering hole. A robot wouldn't need to – he wouldn't need the companionship of a striped horse and bird. A robot would be happy going from Point A to Point B. Robot cars are safe, efficient and reliable.

That's what the technophiles are going to tell us when they come for our car keys.

They're right, of course. Human beings are extremely fallible creatures. There hasn't been an expectation made we homo sapiens couldn't let down. Want to get depressed? Google "driving" – all you'll find is a catalogue of drunken fathers driving children to band practices and teenage lives snuffed out by automotive miscalculations. It's mortifying.

But if we do eventually leave the driving to the robots, we'll lose a lot. We'll lose the pleasure that come from a long drive, a long drive to clear out heads. Everyone knows that one of the best ways to deal with life's worst moments is by going for a drive. Sometimes the best thing a guy can do at F. Scott Fitzgerald's "three o'clock in the morning" is take his car out for a spin.

Even our traffic burdens are our secret pleasures. As someone said to me the other day, when contemplating their commute, "at least I'll be in traffic for a half an hour."

That's the reality. We aren't upset about being stuck in traffic – we crave the opportunity. Commuting isn't a problem. It's an opportunity. For many, being stuck in traffic is the only respite we get. It's the only alone time we get. When I'm driving, it's okay be free from our electronic leashes. When I'm driving, I'm at liberty. I'm busy. I'm driving. No – sorry – I can't answer the phone or reply to your asinine e-mail. I can't do a conference call or Skype (a four-letter word) with you. I'm busy. I'm driving. I'm free.

I'm not the first person to figure that out – freedom through motion. I bet the first reason a man rode a horse was that he looked at one and thought, "If I get on that I can get out of here." As Canadian singer-songwriter Gino Vannelli once said, "People gotta move." Take a glance at anyone riding a motorcycle. Those two-wheeled paladins are way ahead of us.

So, do we have much time before robot-driven cars are the norm? Probably not. I'd like to say we humans are safe for the next few decades, but look at all the jobs the robots have already taken. What a robot wants, a robot gets. A time will come when people driving cars will seem as quaint as canoeing to work. It's not all bad. There will be advantages to robot cars that drive themselves: better mileage, fewer accidents, virtually no road rage (okay, maybe the odd RAM-induced incident). It will finally be possible to have sex while driving without endangering anyone – but will that be as much fun?


And you can forget about guys driving around zebras.

Something tells me robot cars will prefer to take their pets along – us.

Follow Andrew Clark on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy